Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist lived more than 2,300 years ago, and while he wrote copiously on issues that affect us all today, it’s Google’s 2016 Project Aristotle that has produced more actionable information for employers and team leaders.
Renowned as being one of the world’s best resourced, and most resourceful, companies, Google wanted to know why some of its teams worked well, while others faltered, so in 2012 Project Aristotle was born.
Recruiting internally and externally, they assembled a team of statisticians, organisational psychologists, sociologists, engineers and researchers.
They began by reviewing decades of academic studies on team dynamics and productivity. They then looked at the composition of teams within Google and the nature of the individuals in them – right down to recreational interests and educational backgrounds.
Quoted in the New York Times, Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division said ‘‘We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’
So, the question became something like this: “If the composition of the individuals in a team doesn’t correlate with productivity, what does?”
The answer they began to understand lay in what are known as “group norms”. Norms, in this sense, are the rules, often unspoken and seldom written or formalised, are the traditions, behavioural standards and group expectations that determine the interactions of members of a team. It’s important to note that group norms typically override the patterns of behaviour of individual team members.
Having identified that the answer lay in norms, they drilled down further, looking at more than 100 groups in Google for over a year, examining their functionality, productivity and norms. Again, there seemed to be no clear-cut answer. Identifying hundreds of norms and correlating them with other team factors produced no definite result.
Their Eureka (thanks Archimedes, another ancient Greek thinker) moment came when they considered the concept of psychological safety. Defined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ The important word in this definition is ‘safe’. In practice, psychological safety gives team members the confidence to present their point of view, offer suggestions or observations without fear of embarrassment or criticism.
Project Aristotle determined that, while there were other behaviours that were important, the norms creating psychological safety were the most vital to the success and productivity of a team.
In future articles I’ll discuss some of the other factors they found to be important and also cover some of the key steps to creating the norms that deliver psychological safety within a team.
If you’d like to discuss the implications for your company, leadership roles or how executive coaching can drive positive change for you, please contact Melinda Fell email: firstname.lastname@example.org.